How to avoid the daily grind getting you down: be less busy, slow down and make tasks more meaningful
There is nothing wrong with being busy, but when it gets too hard to switch off at night and weekends you need to hit the pause button and recharge your mind and body. Yoga can help, and so can spending time with nature
Too busy to sit down to eat, too busy to maintain friendships, too busy to spend quality time with family, too busy to exercise, too busy to go on holiday … I hate to admit it, but that was me not too long ago. Between 2006 and 2011 I was so busy with the demands of my career that I allowed every other aspect of my life to fall by the wayside.
I took pleasure in having a million things to do because it gave me a sense of purpose. Running two magazines and a website during the day and attending work and social events at night kept me on my well-manicured toes and made me feel like I was working towards something important.
What I didn’t know was that my ultra-busy lifestyle was eroding my emotional and physical health. I often felt overwhelmed, but found it hard to switch off, even when I went home at night. I was constantly wracked with worry about making mistakes and being labelled a failure. Still, I continued to pile more work on myself.
Looking back, I realise I was doing a lot, but not really getting anything done. And I was not fulfilled.
Eventually my “busy” addiction caught up with me, in the form of extreme mental and physical fatigue and paralysing anxiety attacks that would leave me holed up in bed at weekends.
I was tired of feeling on edge or like I was about to have a heart attack, and doing nothing for a day or two was the only way I knew how to restore a sense of peace and balance to my life.
Being busy is a good thing – it keeps the mind active and gives us the feeling of living full and worthy lives. But we may have become so used to life in the fast lane that we’ve forgotten the importance of stepping on the brakes every now and then.
In fact, for many of us, being “too busy” is a badge of honour. In a bid to have, be and do it all, we cram our to-do lists with more tasks than we can handle and overcommit ourselves to people without considering how our lifestyles are wearing us down.
“Society places a lot of importance on keeping busy,” says Dr Joyce Chao, a clinical psychologist at Dimensions Centre in Hong Kong’s Central business district. “We’re expected to be active, even after we retire, because this means that we’re being productive, and hence, useful.
“Unless we’re constantly engaged, we’re deemed to not be useful. And technology has advanced to the point where we can do more done in less time, so it’s not surprising that so many of us are trying to fit more into our lives.”
But doing more can be problematic for some. “Getting caught up in the daily grind can certainly affect your life,” Chao says. “You might place a lot of pressure on yourself, which can lead to anxiety and stress, causing you to push others away and leaving you feeling isolated.
“If your mind is running a mile a minute and you’re feeling overwhelmed by everything you have to do, your focus becomes compromised and you miss the opportunity to engage with whatever you’re doing.”
When you go, go, go without taking a moment to recharge, the stress can also manifest itself physically, in the form of headaches, shortness of breath, digestive disorders, aches and pains, insomnia, and even depression.
There is nothing wrong with being busy, but at some point you have to ask yourself: is what you’re doing meaningful?
“It’s important to find value in your tasks and activities,” says Chao. “So many people busy themselves with things that mean nothing to them, but they do them because it’s what society expects.
“So my advice is to be more selective about what you’re filling your time with. And the way to do that is to look at what you’re doing and ask yourself if those activities are valuable, meaningful and purposeful.”
Mother-of-two Bindiya Surtani took up yoga a few years ago as a way to switch off and slow down. She does about eight hours of hatha, hot vinyasa and detox flow yoga each week.
“I’m always busy, attending to my kids all day, catching up with friends, and travelling to visit family,” says the 40-year-old, who is from Indonesia, married to a Hongkonger, and now lives in Singapore. “Before I got into yoga I was easily irritable and found it hard to concentrate because I had a million things on my mind. But now, even with a super-hectic schedule, I feel a lot calmer. Yoga is my retreat from the pressures and challenges I face daily. It’s taught me to be more aware of my emotions and helped me deal with stress in a more practical way.”
Hongkonger Ziggy Makant also realised that her fast-paced lifestyle wasn’t doing her any favours. Just before giving birth to her baby last December, the 25-year-old decided to give up her gruelling full-time job as a personal trainer to teach mother-baby fitness classes three times a week.
“Before I became a mum, I worked 18-hour days,” she said. “My job was high-pressure, not to mention tiring, because I also had to manage my clients’ nutrition and exercise programmes. Now I work fewer hours, but it’s worth it because I get to spend every moment with my son.
“Life’s still busy and demanding, of course, but my days are more fulfilling and I’ve learned to treasure every precious minute.”
If changing jobs sounds drastic, you can wind down by spending time in nature.
“Find a quiet spot in a park or on the beach and just sit there with your thoughts,” Chao suggests. “Take in your surroundings and let go of your worries. The point is to allow everything to come to a halt for a while and to be aware of yourself and where you are.
“Like meditation, being in nature is a chance for you to retreat from your hectic lifestyle and reconnect with yourself. If you can’t get to a park or beach, find a quiet, private corner at home and meditate for 10 to 15 minutes. Focus on your breath as you tune out the thoughts that are running through your mind.”
In his book Do Breathe, mindfulness coach Michael Townsend Williams writes that “the best way forward is to stop”. I couldn’t agree more. I haven’t quite gotten the hang of meditation yet, but I love the meditative effect of being out in nature.
When I start to feel overwhelmed by whatever is happening in my life, I chill out with a long hike or swim. Hiking engages all my senses, grounds me, and forces me to pay attention to where I’m stepping, while swimming helps me focus on my breathing and makes me feel free.
Since I switched to freelance work in 2011, life is less frantic and I no longer have anxiety attacks. I still have a lot on my plate, and now split my time between Australia, Hawaii and Hong Kong. But instead of mindlessly rushing through tasks, I make it a point to be mentally and emotionally present in everything I do.
And by hitting the pause button every now and again I give myself permission to connect with what’s meaningful to me, to savour the journey, and to get a better sense of where I am going and why.